Pope Francis in Conversation with the Editors of European Jesuit Journals
May 19, 2022. “Welcome! You see? I am in my new gestatorial chair,” the pope joked, alluding to his being in a wheelchair owing to knee pain. Francis greeted, one-by-one, the editors of the cultural journals of the Society of Jesus in Europe gathered in the Private Library of the Apostolic Palace.
The group was composed of Fr. Stefan Kiechle of Stimmen der Zeit (Germany), Lucienne Bittar of Choisir (Switzerland), Fr. Ulf Jonsson of Signum (Sweden), Fr. Jaime Tatay of Razón y fe (Spain), Fr. José Frazão of Correia di Brotéria (Portugal), Fr. Paweł Kosiński of Deon (Poland), Fr. Arpad Hovarth of A Szív (Hungary), Robert Mesaros of Viera a život (Slovakia), Frances Murphy of Thinking Faith (Great Britain) and Fr. Antonio Spadaro of La Civiltà Cattolica (Italy). Three editors were lay people, two of whom were women (of the Swiss and British magazines). The others were Jesuits.
The meeting with the pontiff was the start of their annual three-day meeting. The superior general of the Society of Jesus, Father Arturo Sosa, was also present. “I have not prepared a speech,” the pope began, “so, if you want, ask questions. If we have a dialogue, our meeting will be richer.”
Holy Father, thank you for this meeting. What is the meaning and mission of the journals of the Society of Jesus? Do you have a mission for us?
It is not easy to give a clear and precise answer. In general, of course, I believe that the mission of a cultural journal is to communicate. I would add, however, to communicate in the most embodied way possible, in a personal way, with the authenticity of a face-to-face engagement. By this I mean that it is not enough to communicate ideas. You have to communicate ideas that come from experience. This for me is very important. Ideas must come from experience.
Take the example of heresies, whether they are theological or human, for there are also human heresies. In my view, a heresy arises when the idea is disconnected from human reality. Hence the phrase someone said – Chesterton if I remember correctly – that “heresy is an idea gone mad.” It has gone mad because it has lost its human roots.
The Society of Jesus should not be interested in communicating abstract ideas. It is interested, instead, in communicating human experience through ideas and reasoning, through experience. Ideas are to be discussed. Discussion is a good thing, but for me it is not enough. It is human reality that is to be discerned. Discernment is what really counts. The mission of a Jesuit publication cannot be only to discuss, but it must be above all able to help discernment that leads to action.
Sometimes, in order to discern, you have to throw a stone! If you throw a stone the waters are stirred up; everything moves and you can discern. But if instead of throwing a stone, you throw… a mathematical equation, a theorem, then there will be no movement, and therefore no discernment.
Notice that this phenomenon of abstract ideas about the human condition is ancient. It characterized, for example, decadent scholasticism, a theology of pure ideas, totally distant from the reality of salvation, which is the encounter with Jesus Christ. That is why a cultural magazine must work on reality, which is always superior to the idea. And if the reality is scandalous, even better.
For example, I recently met with the “Santa Marta Group,” which works on the scandalous reality of human trafficking. This is something that moves us, touches us and pushes us forward. On the other hand, abstract ideas about the enslavement of people do not move anyone. We have to start from experience and its narration.
This is the principle that I wanted to tell you about and that I recommend to you: reality is superior to the idea, and therefore you must deal with ideas and reflections that arise from reality.
When you enter the world of ideas alone and move away from reality you end up with what is ridiculous. Ideas are discussed, reality is discerned. Discernment is the charism of the Society. In my opinion, it is the first charism of the Society and it is what the Society must continue to focus on, including in its cultural journals. They must be helpful and promote discernment.
The Society is present in Ukraine, part of my province. We are living through a war of attrition and write about it in our journals. What are your suggestions for communicating the situation in which we are living? How can we contribute to a peaceful future?
To answer this question we have to move away from the normal pattern of “Little Red Riding Hood”: Little Red Riding Hood was good and the wolf was the bad guy. Here there are no metaphysical good guys and bad guys, in an abstract sense. Something global is emerging, with elements that are very much intertwined. A couple of months before the war started I met a head of state, a wise man, who speaks very little, very wise indeed. After we talked about the things he wanted to talk about, he told me that he was very concerned about the way NATO was moving. I asked him why, and he said, “They are barking at the gates of Russia. They do not understand that the Russians are imperialists and will allow no foreign power to approach them.” He concluded, “The situation could lead to war.” This was his opinion. On February 24, the war began. That head of state was able to read the signs of what was taking place.
What we are seeing is the brutality and ferocity with which this war is being carried out by the troops, generally mercenaries, used by the Russians. The Russians prefer to send in Chechen and Syrian mercenaries. But the danger is that we only see this, which is monstrous, and we do not see the whole drama unfolding behind this war, which was perhaps somehow either provoked or not prevented. And note the interest in testing and selling weapons. It is very sad, but at the end of the day that is what is at stake.
Someone may say to me at this point: so you are pro-Putin! No, I am not. It would be simplistic and wrong to say such a thing. I am simply against reducing complexity to the distinction between good guys and bad guys without reasoning about roots and interests, which are very complex. While we see the ferocity, the cruelty of Russian troops, we must not forget the real problems if we want them to be solved.
It is also true that the Russians thought it would all be over in a week. But they miscalculated. They encountered a brave people, a people who are struggling to survive and who have a history of struggle.
I must also add that we see what is happening now in the Ukraine because it is closer to us and touches our sensibility more. But there are other countries far away. Let us think of some parts of Africa, the north of Nigeria, the north of the Congo, where a war is still going on and nobody cares. Think of Rwanda 25 years ago. Think of Myanmar and the Rohingya. The world is at war. A few years ago it occurred to me to say that we are living the third world war piece by piece. For me, today, World War III has been declared. This is something that should give us pause for thought. What is happening to humanity that we have had three world wars in a century? I lived the first war through my grandfather’s experience on the Piave River. And then the second and now the third. This is bad for humanity, a calamity. To think that in one century there have been three world wars, with all the arms trade behind them!
Just three years ago, there was the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings. Many heads of state and government celebrated their success. No one remembered the tens of thousands of young men who died on the beaches on that occasion.
When I went to Redipuglia in 2014 for the centenary of the world war – I share something personal – I cried when I saw the age of the fallen soldiers. When, a few years later, on November 2 – I visit a cemetery every November 2 – I went to Anzio, I cried there when I saw the age of those fallen soldiers. Last year I went to a French cemetery and saw that the graves of the young men – Christians and Muslims, because the French also sent those from North Africa to fight – were also of young men of 20, 22, 24 years old. When I went to Slovakia, I was struck by the number of young and old women. However, there was a lack of older men. The grandmothers were alone. The war had taken their husbands away.
Why am I telling you this? Because I would like your journals to deal with the human side of war. I would like you to show the human drama of war. It is all very well to make a geopolitical calculation, to study things in depth. You must do so because that is your duty. But also try to convey the human drama of war: the human drama of those cemeteries, the human drama of the beaches of Normandy or Anzio, the human drama of a woman whose receives a knock on the door, it’s a postman with a letter thanking her for having given a son to the country, who is a hero of the country. But she is then left alone. Reflecting on this would help humanity and the Church a great deal. Make your socio-political reflections, without however neglecting human reflection on war.
Let us go back to Ukraine. Everyone opens their hearts to the refugees, the Ukrainian exiles, who are usually women and children. The men are left to fight. At the general audience last week, two wives of Ukrainian soldiers who were in the Azovstal steelworks came to ask me to intercede for them to be saved. We are all very sensitive to these dramatic situations. They are women with children whose husbands are fighting over there. Young, beautiful women. But I ask myself, what will happen when the enthusiasm to help passes? Because things are cooling down, and who will then take care of these women? We need to look beyond the concrete action of the moment, and see how we will support them so that they do not fall into trafficking, are not abused, because the vultures are already circling.
Ukraine is an expert in suffering slavery and war. It is a rich country that has always been cut up, torn apart by the will of those who want to take it over and exploit it. It is as if history has predisposed Ukraine to be a heroic country. Seeing this heroism touches our hearts. A heroism that combines with tenderness! In fact when the first young Russian soldiers arrived – later they sent mercenaries – sent to carry out a “military operation,” as they said, without knowing they were going to war, it was the Ukrainian women who took care of them when they surrendered. Great humanity, great tenderness. Brave women. Brave people. A people not afraid to fight. A people hardworking and at the same time proud of their land. We keep in mind the Ukrainian identity at this time. This is what moves us: to see such heroism. I would really like to emphasize this point, the heroism of the Ukrainian people. What is before our eyes is a situation of world war, global interests, arms sales and geopolitical appropriation, which is martyring a heroic people.
I would like to add one more element. I had a forty-minute conversation with Patriarch Kirill. In the first part he read me a declaration in which he gave reasons justifying the war. When he finished, I intervened and told him: “Brother, we are not clerics of the State, we are pastors of the people.” I was to have met him on June 14 in Jerusalem, to talk about our shared issues. But with the war, by mutual agreement, we decided to postpone the meeting to a later date, so that our dialogue would not be misunderstood. I hope to meet him at a general assembly in Kazakhstan in September. I hope to be able to greet him and speak a little with him as a pastor.
What signs of spiritual renewal do you see in the Church? Do you see any? Are there signs of new, fresh life?
It is very difficult to see spiritual renewal using old-fashioned criteria. We need to renew our way of seeing reality, of evaluating it. In the European Church I see more renewal in the spontaneous things that are emerging: movements, groups, new bishops who remember that there is a Council behind them. Because the Council that some pastors remember best is that of Trent. What I’m saying is not nonsense.
Restorationism has come to gag the Council. The number of groups of “restorers” – for example, in the United States there are many – is significant. An Argentine bishop told me that he had been asked to administer a diocese that had fallen into the hands of these “restorers.” They had never accepted the Council. There are ideas, behaviors that arise from a restorationism that basically did not accept the Council. The problem is precisely this: in some contexts the Council has not yet been accepted. It is also true that it takes a century for a Council to take root. We still have forty years to make it take root, then!
Signs of renewal are also the groups that through social or pastoral assistance give a new face to the Church. The French are very creative in this regard.
You were not yet born, but I witnessed in 1974 the ordeal of Father General Pedro Arrupe during the 32nd General Congregation. At that time there was a conservative reaction to block the prophetic voice of Arrupe! Today for us that General is a saint, but he had to endure many attacks. He was courageous because he dared to take the step. Arrupe was a man of great obedience to the pope, great obedience. Paul VI understood that. The best speech ever written by a pope to the Society of Jesus is the one Paul VI made on December 3, 1974. He wrote it by hand. We still have the originals. The prophetic Paul VI had the freedom to write it. On the other hand, people linked to the curia somehow incited a group of Spanish Jesuits who considered themselves the true “orthodox,” and they opposed Arrupe. Paul VI never got into that game. Arrupe had the ability to see the will of God, combined with a childlike simplicity in adhering to the pope. I remember one day, while we were having coffee in a small group, he approached and said: “Come on, let’s go! The pope is about to pass, let’s greet him!” He was like a child! With that spontaneous love!
A Jesuit from the province of Loyola was particularly aggressive toward Fr. Arrupe. He was sent to various places and even to Argentina, and always made trouble. He once said to me: “You are someone who understands nothing. But the real culprits are Fr. Arrupe and Fr. Calvez. The happiest day of my life will be when I see them hanging from the gallows in St. Peter’s Square.” Why am I telling you this story? To make you understand what the post-conciliar period was like. This is happening again, especially with the traditionalists. That is why it is important to save these figures who defended the Council and fidelity to the pope. We must return to Arrupe: he is a light from that moment that illuminates us all. It was he who rediscovered the Spiritual Exercises as a source, freeing himself from the rigid formulations of the Epitome Instituti, the expression of a closed, rigid thinking, more instructive-ascetical than mystical.
In our Europe, as in my own Sweden, one cannot say that there is a strong religious tradition. How do we evangelize in a culture that has no religious tradition?
It is not easy for me to answer this question. I met with the Swedish Academy, which is the promoter committee of the Nobel Prize for Literature. They brought me as a gift an image of Saint Ignatius bought in an antique shop. It is a painting of Saint Ignatius from the 18th century. I thought: “A group of Swedes bring me Saint Ignatius. He will help them!” I don’t know how to answer your question, to tell you the truth. Because only those who live there, in that context, can understand and discover the right paths. I would like to point out, however, a man who is a model of guidance, Cardinal Anders Arborelius. He is not afraid of anything. He talks to everybody and is not against anybody. He always aims for the positive. I believe that a person like him can indicate the right path to follow.
In Germany we have a synodal path that some think is heretical, but in reality it is very close to real life. Many are leaving the Church because they no longer trust it. A particular case is that of the diocese of Cologne. What do you think of it?
To the president of the German Episcopal Conference, Bishop Bätzing, I said: “In Germany there is a very good Evangelical Church. We don’t need two.” The problem arises when the synodal path comes from the intellectual, theological elites, and is much influenced by external pressures. There are some dioceses where the synodal way is being developed with the faithful, with the people, slowly.
I wanted to write a letter about your synodal way. I wrote it myself, and it took me a month to write it. I did not want to involve the curia. I did it by myself. The original is Spanish and the one in German is a translation. That is where you will find my thoughts.
Then the question of the diocese of Cologne. When the situation was very turbulent, I asked the archbishop to go away for six months, so that things would calm down and I could see clearly. Because when the waters are rough you cannot see clearly. When he returned I asked him to write a letter of resignation. He did and he gave it to me. And he wrote a letter of apology to the diocese. I left him in his place to see what would happen, but I have his resignation in hand.
What is happening is that there are a lot of pressure groups, and under pressure it is not possible to discern. Then there is an economic issue for which I am considering sending a financial team. To be able to discern, I am waiting until there is no pressure. The fact that there are different points of view is fine. The problem is when there is pressure. That does not help. I do not think Cologne is the only diocese in the world where there are conflicts, though. I treat it like any other diocese in the world that experiences conflict. I can think of one where the conflict has not yet ended: Arecibo in Puerto Rico, has been in conflict for years. There are many dioceses like that.
Holy Father, we are a digital magazine and we also speak to young people who are on the margins of the Church. Young people want quick and immediate opinions and information. How can we introduce them to the process of discernment?
One must not stand still. When working with young people we must always give a moving perspective, not a static one. We must ask the Lord to have the grace and wisdom to help us take the right steps. In my time work with young people consisted of study meetings. It no longer works that way now. We have to move them forward with concrete ideals, works, paths. Young people find their reason for being along the way, never in a static way. Some may be hesitant because they see young people without faith; they say they are not in the grace of God. But let God take care of them! Your task is to set them on the way. I think that is the best thing we can do.
Sorry if I went on too long, but I wanted to underline the post-Council and Arrupe issues because the current problem of the Church is precisely the non-acceptance of the Council.
The meeting concluded with a group photo. The pope once again greeted the participants one by one, giving each person a rosary and some books in their respective languages.
Antonio Spadaro SJ is the Editor-in-Chief of La Civiltà Cattolica.
Reproduced with permission from La Civiltà Cattolica and Antonio Spadaro SJ.
 François Euve, director of Études (France), could not be in Rome in time for the audience. Also absent for reasons of force majeure were Dermot Roantree, director of the Irish review (Studies) and Ειρήνη Κουτελάκη, director of the Greek review (Ανοιχτοί Ορίζοντες).
 Here the pope is referring to a kind of practical summary in use in the Society and formulated in the 20th century, which was seen as a substitute for the Constitutions. Jesuit formation in the Society for a time was shaped by this text to such an extent that some never read the Constitutions, which are the foundational text. For the pope during this period in the Society the rules risked overwhelming the spirit.